What Maisie Knew, by Henry James


When he had lighted a cigarette and begun to smoke in her face it was as if he had struck with the match the note of some queer clumsy ferment of old professions, old scandals, old duties, a dim perception of what he possessed in her and what, if everything had only — damn it! — been totally different, she might still be able to give him. What she was able to give him, however, as his blinking eyes seemed to make out through the smoke, would be simply what he should be able to get from her. To give something, to give here on the spot, was all her own desire. Among the old things that came back was her little instinct of keeping the peace; it made her wonder more sharply what particular thing she could do or not do, what particular word she could speak or not speak, what particular line she could take or not take, that might for every one, even for the Countess, give a better turn to the crisis. She was ready, in this interest, for an immense surrender, a surrender of everything but Sir Claude, of everything but Mrs. Beale. The immensity didn’t include THEM; but if he had an idea at the back of his head she had also one in a recess as deep, and for a time, while they sat together, there was an extraordinary mute passage between her vision of this vision of his, his vision of her vision, and her vision of his vision of her vision. What there was no effective record of indeed was the small strange pathos on the child’s part of an innocence so saturated with knowledge and so directed to diplomacy. What, further, Beale finally laid hold of while he masked again with his fine presence half the flounces of the fireplace was: “Do you know, my dear, I shall soon be off to America?” It struck his daughter both as a short cut and as the way he wouldn’t have said it to his wife. But his wife figured with a bright superficial assurance in her response.

“Do you mean with Mrs. Beale?”

Her father looked at her hard. “Don’t be a little ass!”

Her silence appeared to represent a concentrated effort not to be. “Then with the Countess?”

“With her or without her, my dear; that concerns only your poor daddy. She has big interests over there, and she wants me to take a look at them.”

Maisie threw herself into them. “Will that take very long?”

“Yes; they’re in such a muddle — it may take months. Now what I want to hear, you know, is whether you’d like to come along?”

Planted once more before him in the middle of the room she felt herself turning white. “I?” she gasped, yet feeling as soon as she had spoken that such a note of dismay was not altogether pretty. She felt it still more while her father replied, with a shake of his legs, a toss of his cigarette-ash and a fidgety look — he was for ever taking one — all the length of his waistcoat and trousers, that she needn’t be quite so disgusted. It helped her in a few seconds to appear more as he would like her that she saw, in the lovely light of the Countess’s splendour, exactly, however she appeared, the right answer to make. “Dear papa, I’ll go with you anywhere.”

He turned his back to her and stood with his nose at the glass of the chimneypiece while he brushed specks of ash out of his beard. Then he abruptly said: “Do you know anything about your brute of a mother?”

It was just of her brute of a mother that the manner of the question in a remarkable degree reminded her: it had the free flight of one of Ida’s fine bridgings of space. With the sense of this was kindled for Maisie at the same time an inspiration. “Oh yes, I know everything!” and she became so radiant that her father, seeing it in the mirror, turned back to her and presently, on the sofa, had her at his knee again and was again particularly affecting. Maisie’s inspiration instructed her, pressingly, that the more she should be able to say about mamma the less she would be called upon to speak of her step-parents. She kept hoping the Countess would come in before her power to protect them was exhausted; and it was now, in closer quarters with her companion, that the idea at the back of her head shifted its place to her lips. She told him she had met her mother in the Park with a gentleman who, while Sir Claude had strolled with her ladyship, had been kind and had sat and talked to her; narrating the scene with a remembrance of her pledge of secrecy to the Captain quite brushed away by the joy of seeing Beale listen without profane interruption. It was almost an amazement, but it was indeed all a joy, thus to be able to guess that papa was at last quite tired of his anger — of his anger at any rate about mamma. He was only bored with her now. That made it, however, the more imperative that his spent displeasure shouldn’t be blown out again. It charmed the child to see how much she could interest him; and the charm remained even when, after asking her a dozen questions, he observed musingly and a little obscurely: “Yes, damned if she won’t!” For in this too there was a detachment, a wise weariness that made her feel safe. She had had to mention Sir Claude, though she mentioned him as little as possible and Beale only appeared to look quite over his head. It pieced itself together for her that this was the mildness of general indifference, a source of profit so great for herself personally that if the Countess was the author of it she was prepared literally to hug the Countess. She betrayed that eagerness by a restless question about her, to which her father replied: “Oh she has a head on her shoulders. I’ll back her to get out of anything!” He looked at Maisie quite as if he could trace the connexion between her enquiry and the impatience of her gratitude. “Do you mean to say you’d really come with me?”

She felt as if he were now looking at her very hard indeed, and also as if she had grown ever so much older. “I’ll do anything in the world you ask me, papa.”

He gave again, with a laugh and with his legs apart, his proprietary glance at his waistcoat and trousers. “That’s a way, my dear, of saying ‘No, thank you!’ You know you don’t want to go the least little mite. You can’t humbug ME!” Beale Farange laid down. “I don’t want to bully you — I never bullied you in my life; but I make you the offer, and it’s to take or to leave. Your mother will never again have any more to do with you than if you were a kitchenmaid she had turned out for going wrong. Therefore of course I’m your natural protector and you’ve a right to get everything out of me you can. Now’s your chance, you know — you won’t be half-clever if you don’t. You can’t say I don’t put it before you — you can’t say I ain’t kind to you or that I don’t play fair. Mind you never say that, you know — it WOULD bring me down on you. I know what’s proper. I’ll take you again, just as I HAVE taken you again and again. And I’m much obliged to you for making up such a face.”

She was conscious enough that her face indeed couldn’t please him if it showed any sign — just as she hoped it didn’t — of her sharp impression of what he now really wanted to do. Wasn’t he trying to turn the tables on her, embarrass her somehow into admitting that what would really suit her little book would be, after doing so much for good manners, to leave her wholly at liberty to arrange for herself? She began to be nervous again: it rolled over her that this was their parting, their parting for ever, and that he had brought her there for so many caresses only because it was important such an occasion should look better for him than any other. For her to spoil it by the note of discord would certainly give him ground for complaint; and the child was momentarily bewildered between her alternatives of agreeing with him about her wanting to get rid of him and displeasing him by pretending to stick to him. So she found for the moment no solution but to murmur very helplessly: “Oh papa — oh papa!”

“I know what you’re up to — don’t tell ME!” After which he came straight over and, in the most inconsequent way in the world, clasped her in his arms a moment and rubbed his beard against her cheek. Then she understood as well as if he had spoken it that what he wanted, hang it, was that she should let him off with all the honours — with all the appearance of virtue and sacrifice on his side. It was exactly as if he had broken out to her: “I say, you little booby, help me to be irreproachable, to be noble, and yet to have none of the beastly bore of it. There’s only impropriety enough for one of us; so YOU must take it all. REPUDIATE your dear old daddy — in the face, mind you, of his tender supplications. He can’t be rough with you — it isn’t in his nature: therefore you’ll have successfully chucked him because he was too generous to be as firm with you, poor man, as was, after all, his duty.” This was what he communicated in a series of tremendous pats on the back; that portion of her person had never been so thumped since Moddle thumped her when she choked. After a moment he gave her the further impression of having become sure enough of her to be able very gracefully to say out: “You know your mother loathes you, loathes you simply. And I’ve been thinking over your precious man — the fellow you told me about.”

“Well,” Maisie replied with competence, “I’m sure of HIM.”

Her father was vague for an instant. “Do you mean sure of his liking you?”

“Oh no; of his liking HER!”

Beale had a return of gaiety. “There’s no accounting for tastes! It’s what they all say, you know.”

“I don’t care — I’m sure of him!” Maisie repeated.

“Sure, you mean, that she’ll bolt?”

Maisie knew all about bolting, but, decidedly, she WAS older, and there was something in her that could wince at the way her father made the ugly word — ugly enough at best — sound flat and low. It prompted her to amend his allusion, which she did by saying: “I don’t know what she’ll do. But she’ll be happy.”

“Let us hope so,” said Beale — almost as for edification. “The more happy she is at any rate the less she’ll want you about. That’s why I press you,” he agreeably pursued, “to consider this handsome offer — I mean seriously, you know — of your sole surviving parent.” Their eyes, at this, met again in a long and extraordinary communion which terminated in his ejaculating: “Ah you little scoundrel!” She took it from him in the manner it seemed to her he would like best and with a success that encouraged him to go on: “You ARE a deep little devil!” Her silence, ticking like a watch, acknowledged even this, in confirmation of which he finally brought out: “You’ve settled it with the other pair!”

“Well, what if I have?” She sounded to herself most bold.

Her father, quite as in the old days, broke into a peal. “Why, don’t you know they’re awful?”

She grew bolder still. “I don’t care — not a bit!”

“But they’re probably the worst people in the world and the very greatest criminals,” Beale pleasantly urged. “I’m not the man, my dear, not to let you know it.”

“Well, it doesn’t prevent them from loving me. They love me tremendously.” Maisie turned crimson to hear herself.

Her companion fumbled; almost any one — let alone a daughter — would have seen how conscientious he wanted to be. “I dare say. But do you know why?” She braved his eyes and he added: “You’re a jolly good pretext.”

“For what?” Maisie asked.

“Why, for their game. I needn’t tell you what that is.”

The child reflected. “Well then that’s all the more reason.”

“Reason for what, pray?”

“For their being kind to me.”

“And for your keeping in with them?” Beale roared again; it was as if his spirits rose and rose. “Do you realise, pray, that in saying that you’re a monster?”

She turned it over. “A monster?”

“They’ve MADE one of you. Upon my honour it’s quite awful. It shows the kind of people they are. Don’t you understand,” Beale pursued, “that when they’ve made you as horrid as they can — as horrid as themselves — they’ll just simply chuck you?”

She had at this a flicker of passion. “They WON’T chuck me!”

“I beg your pardon,” her father courteously insisted; “it’s my duty to put it before you. I shouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t point out to you that they’ll cease to require you.” He spoke as if with an appeal to her intelligence that she must be ashamed not adequately to meet, and this gave a real distinction to his superior delicacy.

It cleared the case as he had wished. “Cease to require me because they won’t care?” She paused with that sketch of her idea.

“OF COURSE Sir Claude won’t care if his wife bolts. That’s his game. It will suit him down to the ground.”

This was a proposition Maisie could perfectly embrace, but it still left a loophole for triumph. She turned it well over. “You mean if mamma doesn’t come back ever at all?” The composure with which her face was presented to that prospect would have shown a spectator the long road she had travelled. “Well, but that won’t put Mrs. Beale —”

“In the same comfortable position —?” Beale took her up with relish; he had sprung to his feet again, shaking his legs and looking at his shoes. “Right you are, darling! Something more will be wanted for Mrs. Beale.” He just paused, then he added: “But she may not have long to wait for it.”

Maisie also for a minute looked at his shoes, though they were not the pair she most admired, the laced yellow “uppers” and patent-leather complement. At last, with a question, she raised her eyes. “Aren’t you coming back?”

Once more he hung fire; after which he gave a small laugh that in the oddest way in the world reminded her of the unique sounds she had heard emitted by Mrs. Wix. “It may strike you as extraordinary that I should make you such an admission; and in point of fact you’re not to understand that I do. But we’ll put it that way to help your decision. The point is that that’s the way my wife will presently be sure to put it. You’ll hear her shrieking that she’s deserted, so that she may just pile up her wrongs. She’ll be as free as she likes then — as free, you see, as your mother’s muff of a husband. They won’t have anything more to consider and they’ll just put you into the street. Do I understand,” Beale enquired, “that, in the face of what I press on you, you still prefer to take the risk of that?” It was the most wonderful appeal any gentleman had ever addressed to his daughter, and it had placed Maisie in the middle of the room again while her father moved slowly about her with his hands in his pockets and something in his step that seemed, more than anything else he had done, to show the habit of the place. She turned her fevered little eyes over his friend’s brightnesses, as if, on her own side, to press for some help in a quandary unexampled. As if also the pressure reached him he after an instant stopped short, completing the prodigy of his attitude and the pride of his loyalty by a supreme formulation of the general inducement. “You’ve an eye, love! Yes, there’s money. No end of money.”

This affected her at first in the manner of some great flashing dazzle in one of the pantomimes to which Sir Claude had taken her: she saw nothing in it but what it directly conveyed. “And shall I never, never see you again —?”

“If I do go to America?” Beale brought it out like a man. “Never, never, never!”

Hereupon, with the utmost absurdity, she broke down; everything gave way, everything but the horror of hearing herself definitely utter such an ugliness as the acceptance of that. So she only stiffened herself and said: “Then I can’t give you up.”

She held him some seconds looking at her, showing her a strained grimace, a perfect parade of all his teeth, in which it seemed to her she could read the disgust he didn’t quite like to express at this departure from the pliability she had practically promised. But before she could attenuate in any way the crudity of her collapse he gave an impatient jerk which took him to the window. She heard a vehicle stop; Beale looked out; then he freshly faced her. He still said nothing, but she knew the Countess had come back. There was a silence again between them, but with a different shade of embarrassment from that of their united arrival; and it was still without speaking that, abruptly repeating one of the embraces of which he had already been so prodigal, he whisked her back to the lemon sofa just before the door of the room was thrown open. It was thus in renewed and intimate union with him that she was presented to a person whom she instantly recognised as the brown lady.

The brown lady looked almost as astonished, though not quite as alarmed, as when, at the Exhibition, she had gasped in the face of Mrs. Beale. Maisie in truth almost gasped in her own; this was with the fuller perception that she was brown indeed. She literally struck the child more as an animal than as a “real” lady; she might have been a clever frizzled poodle in a frill or a dreadful human monkey in a spangled petticoat. She had a nose that was far too big and eyes that were far too small and a moustache that was, well, not so happy a feature as Sir Claude’s. Beale jumped up to her; while, to the child’s astonishment, though as if in a quick intensity of thought, the Countess advanced as gaily as if, for many a day, nothing awkward had happened for any one. Maisie, in spite of a large acquaintance with the phenomenon, had never seen it so promptly established that nothing awkward was to be mentioned. The next minute the Countess had kissed her and exclaimed to Beale with bright tender reproach: “Why, you never told me HALF! My dear child,” she cried, “it was awfully nice of you to come!”

“But she hasn’t come — she won’t come!” Beale answered. “I’ve put it to her how much you’d like it, but she declines to have anything to do with us.”

The Countess stood smiling, and after an instant that was mainly taken up with the shock of her weird aspect Maisie felt herself reminded of another smile, which was not ugly, though also interested — the kind light thrown, that day in the Park, from the clean fair face of the Captain. Papa’s Captain — yes — was the Countess; but she wasn’t nearly so nice as the other: it all came back, doubtless, to Maisie’s minor appreciation of ladies. “Shouldn’t you like me,” said this one endearingly, “to take you to Spa?”

“To Spa?” The child repeated the name to gain time, not to show how the Countess brought back to her a dim remembrance of a strange woman with a horrid face who once, years before, in an omnibus, bending to her from an opposite seat, had suddenly produced an orange and murmured “Little dearie, won’t you have it?” She had felt then, for some reason, a small silly terror, though afterwards conscious that her interlocutress, unfortunately hideous, had particularly meant to be kind. This was also what the Countess meant; yet the few words she had uttered and the smile with which she had uttered them immediately cleared everything up. Oh no, she wanted to go nowhere with HER, for her presence had already, in a few seconds, dissipated the happy impression of the room and put an end to the pleasure briefly taken in Beale’s command of such elegance. There was no command of elegance in his having exposed her to the approach of the short fat wheedling whiskered person in whom she had now to recognise the only figure wholly without attraction involved in any of the intimate connexions her immediate circle had witnessed the growth of. She was abashed meanwhile, however, at having appeared to weigh in the balance the place to which she had been invited; and she added as quickly as possible: “It isn’t to America then?” The Countess, at this, looked sharply at Beale, and Beale, airily enough, asked what the deuce it mattered when she had already given him to understand she wanted to have nothing to do with them. There followed between her companions a passage of which the sense was drowned for her in the deepening inward hum of her mere desire to get off; though she was able to guess later on that her father must have put it to his friend that it was no use talking, that she was an obstinate little pig and that, besides, she was really old enough to choose for herself. It glimmered back to her indeed that she must have failed quite dreadfully to seem ideally other than rude, inasmuch as before she knew it she had visibly given the impression that if they didn’t allow her to go home she should cry. Oh if there had ever been a thing to cry about it was being so consciously and gawkily below the handsomest offers any one could ever have received. The great pain of the thing was that she could see the Countess liked her enough to wish to be liked in return, and it was from the idea of a return she sought utterly to flee. It was the idea of a return that after a confusion of loud words had broken out between the others brought to her lips with the tremor preceding disaster: “Can’t I, please, be sent home in a cab?” Yes, the Countess wanted her and the Countess was wounded and chilled, and she couldn’t help it, and it was all the more dreadful because it only made the Countess more coaxing and more impossible. The only thing that sustained either of them perhaps till the cab came — Maisie presently saw it would come — was its being in the air somehow that Beale had done what he wanted. He went out to look for a conveyance; the servants, he said, had gone to bed, but she shouldn’t be kept beyond her time. The Countess left the room with him, and, alone in the possession of it, Maisie hoped she wouldn’t come back. It was all the effect of her face — the child simply couldn’t look at it and meet its expression halfway. All in a moment too that queer expression had leaped into the lovely things — all in a moment she had had to accept her father as liking some one whom she was sure neither her mother, nor Mrs. Beale, nor Mrs. Wix, nor Sir Claude, nor the Captain, nor even Mr. Perriam and Lord Eric could possibly have liked. Three minutes later, downstairs, with the cab at the door, it was perhaps as a final confession of not having much to boast of that, on taking leave of her, he managed to press her to his bosom without her seeing his face. For herself she was so eager to go that their parting reminded her of nothing, not even of a single one of all the “nevers” that above, as the penalty of not cleaving to him, he had attached to the question of their meeting again. There was something in the Countess that falsified everything, even the great interests in America and yet more the first flush of that superiority to Mrs. Beale and to mamma which had been expressed in Sèvres sets and silver boxes. These were still there, but perhaps there were no great interests in America. Mamma had known an American who was not a bit like this one. She was not, however, of noble rank; her name was only Mrs. Tucker. Maisie’s detachment would none the less have been more complete if she had not suddenly had to exclaim: “Oh dear, I haven’t any money!”

Her father’s teeth, at this, were such a picture of appetite without action as to be a match for any plea of poverty. “Make your stepmother pay.”

“Stepmothers DON’T pay!” cried the Countess. “No stepmother ever paid in her life!” The next moment they were in the street together, and the next the child was in the cab, with the Countess, on the pavement, but close to her, quickly taking money from a purse whisked out of a pocket. Her father had vanished and there was even yet nothing in that to reawaken the pang of loss. “Here’s money,” said the brown lady: “go!” The sound was commanding: the cab rattled off. Maisie sat there with her hand full of coin. All that for a cab? As they passed a street-lamp she bent to see how much. What she saw was a cluster of sovereigns. There MUST then have been great interests in America. It was still at any rate the Arabian Nights.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56